F:AT looks back at the state of fantasy, adventure games (this article was originally published March 9, 2009).
Fantasy role-playing games have an irresistible, almost fatal attraction for me. It stems from my childhood exposure to Tolkien, I have no doubt and fantasy role-playing was where I started my exposure to hobby games in general, and remained the focus of my hobby time for many years. I delight in the mythic quality of the settings, the feeling of magic and mystery that pervades (as contrasted to cold, mechanical science fiction), the evocation of a world which parallels our own history in medieval Europe, and in the plots of both high and low fantasy. So you might think it natural that now I consider myself primarily a board gamer, I’d be all over adventure boardgames like a rash. Yet I have played remarkably few, and am interested in trying even fewer.
I probably ought to start out by explaining why it is I stopped playing role-playing games and moved on instead to fantasy wargames which in turn provided my introduction to board games. There were two factors at work. Firstly and most importantly I’d known from long experience that actually playing in an RPG campaign rarely matched with how I’d imagined it would be. I would read reports of adventures in places like Dragon and White Dwarf, played by groups of people who were obviously professionally involved in the hobby and thrill to the depth of character and plot that they managed to generate. I might buy and read a module and get carried away imagining how exciting it would be to run a party of adventurers through the dungeon. But in reality what usually happened was that at best we’d end up playing a two-dimensional Monty Haul game or at worst, someone in the game would get into a huff over a rules interpretation and the session would be ruined. The second thing was my exposure to a new set of gamers when I went to university. One was a superb games master who showed me how vital it was to have a skilled GM to breath life and pathos into the games. Others were a random group of players I drafted into my own campaign, and over the course of three years and many adventures we became good friends away from the confines of the game and the interactions of the players virtually ran the campaign on its own - my adventures and plots became superfluous as much of the intrigue and excitement unfolded from the relationships and frictions that arose between the characters. After university I gathered together another couple of ill-fated groups in my local area and found myself back in monty haul territory again. I’d learned two things - firstly that to make an RPG work you need a group of socially skilled players who have relationships outside the game and second that the majority of RPG players completely lacked the social graces required to participate in a fun game. So I moved on.
But of course I can’t just move on from the deep-seated fascination I had with the actual trappings of fantasy. And I found, to my considerably surprise, that playing fantasy wargames actually pushed my buttons in a far more satisfying way than I’d through they could. Even though nearly all the games I played were isolated one-on-one matches, I was able to imagine a framework of character and plot for my exploits on the battlefield which required no input at all from the opposing player. So they were mine, and unsullied by unfortunate interactions with other players which is what ruined so many good role-playing sessions. My fellow wargamers thought it quite bizarre that I went to the lengths of naming all my character models and regiments and writing pen-pic histories for each of them and for the army as a whole. But it added a whole new dimension to the game for me, and I loved it.
But I can’t recreate that feeling in a board game. There are many reasons why not: for starters, most adventure board games simply don’t have the creative equivalent of building up an army from a wide selection of choices and possibilities. Board games lend themselves better to different strategies actually employed in play rather than beforehand, employed in building a force. With wargames I played no more than three rules systems over the space of several years whereas in board games there are many titles competing for your attention, which limits the amount of time you can lavish on creating a background or a setting for your games. Most boardgame companies simply don’t put the effort of developing a back story for their games in the same way as Games Workshop can for Warhammer because, again, they have too many titles competing for attention. In truth, once you’ve run through this gauntlet of problems there are still one or two board games I can think of that might fit the bill. And besides, board games offer other advantages over wargames for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have made the switch. But even allowing for that, I keep on coming up against the same issues in fantasy board games time and time again. And each time I get fed up and back off again, to the point where I hardly even bother looking at new releases in the genre any more.
I can’t think of a better way of running through these problems than simply listing them. Not all are applicable to all games but, it seems, at least one - often more - always is, and they’re all deal breakers for me. Firstly it seems quite common for these sorts of games to run absurdly long play times which might be fine for one off games but which makes it impossible for people without a ton of spare time to link games together into a more pleasing fantasy narrative. They also have a tendency to be complicated which isn’t something I usually object to in a game but which in this case makes you wonder why you don’t just run an actual role-playing session instead of a board game. I crave competition in games and these sorts of games often have heavy co-operative elements. I also like games to have heavy doses of player interaction and even those games in this genre which are directly competitive are frequently dressed-up race games in which interaction is done down. Finally it seems to be quite common for the design and mechanics of these games to heavily play up the story and role-playing elements at the expense of good strategy and meaningful choice.
I’ve been through so many of these games and found each to be wanting in one or more departments that it’d be pointless to go through them all. I’ll take a moment to torpedo some of the more obvious choices that have been suggested to me. Descent does, in fairness, tick most boxes, but it takes far, far too long. Runebound lacks interaction as well as being long. Return of the Heroes, which looked very promising at first, eventually went down because of the low interaction and the rather laughable high-fantasy setting (an “epic quest” involving buying candles? Please!). World of Warcraft went out of its way to do something about the interaction problem and ended up making a mess of virtually every other aspect of the game mechanics. Warhammer Quest isn’t competitive enough. It’s enough to put you off the things for life.
What I find completely bizarre about this whole thing is that to me there seem to me be a number of ways in which designers could escape from these dead ends, and yet every new title that comes out falls prey to them all over again. The reason, I suspect, is that the biggest market for games of these kinds are frustrated role-players. And so they expect and forgive things like complexity, long play time and low interaction/competitiveness because those are near-universal tropes of the role-playing genre that the board games are trying to ape. But however they try, they’re not role playing games but board games, and each offers its own play experience and advantages and disadvantages. So why keep on trying to drag the role-playing experience on to a board which seems to bring with it many of the worst aspects of both types of games when one could instead be trying to emphasize the advantages that playing on a board can offer? Shorter rules and play times because less mechanical eventualities need to be covered. A better choice of in-play strategy and tactics instead of solving everything with a combination of dice and imagination. The opportunity to play a heated, thrilling, competitive game instead of a co-operative one?
I have no other answers to this one, and I know of nothing on the horizon in the adventure game market that seems to have the capacity to break out of these self-imposed bonds. The nearest thing that we’ve come, so far, are wargames in which characters play a heavy role - the old, but still good Dragon Pass, the newer and highly lauded War of the Ring and potentially the still new and shiny Age of Conan. Indeed I suspect that part of the reason behind the success of War of the Ring and the high expectations of Age of Conan is precisely that they’ve managed to come the closest yet to the careful balancing act between the demands of board and role. The only pure-bred adventure game in the works that seems to have any promise about it is the reprint of Tales of the Arabian Knights a game about which in truth I know very little, but which I’m keeping an eye on purely out of respect for it as something different, which doesn’t follow the typical mechanics dictates of the genre. But we can do better. I know we can. And if ever I pull my finger out and get round to trying to design a game of my very own, solving the riddle of the dungeons of dullness is going to be my number one priority.